The Mystery of Selfless Joy

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

I appreciate clarity. I enjoy when thoughts are clearly defined and delineated. Personally, writing has been my tool to clarify my thoughts, as it seems the written word is always one step ahead of me — as if it knows what I am just discovering. Ironically, though, writing has taught me the contrary as well: that there are certain convictions, certain truths one may experience, that insist on remaining elusive and intangible. Perhaps too deep, too true, to fully digest and mentally grasp. The clarity then is to be found in the experience — regardless of definition. One such abstract notion — I reckon, anyway — is the concept of unity.

We live in an era where — thank G-d — unity is extolled as a virtue nearly worldwide. I’ll take that to mean that we all know what unity is. Perhaps at the core of our human experience. Its definition, though, is slightly obscure. For a better comprehension of the (somewhat) incomprehensible, let’s break this down.

Unity will most surely consist of individuals — with individuality, of course — somehow linked and tied by something in common. Now, commonality can be found on many levels: There are people who share an interest — a shared passion; perhaps rooting for the same team. There are those who share a dream; a common vision. Deeper yet, are those who act toward that collective goal, maybe for the betterment of mankind. And it surely would be a remarkable achievement if we would all share and take part in a vision of ultimate good, unified by the cause. (And no, we shouldn’t all cheer for the same team. That would be no fun. Let’s keep the dissension civil, though.) Nonetheless, I think unity means more than that. It’s an experience where one transcends their individuality. I can’t exactly explain it, but I believe we might all just know it.

Here is my experience:

This past week we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shavuos. In a nutshell, Shavous marks and celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (following the Exodus from Egypt), which was a sort-of final touch on our ancestors’ birth and development into a nation — and under the tutelage of the newly-received Torah, we were tasked with bettering ourselves and the world around us. To greet the holiday — as we do — with prayer, I was in a synagogue that had over a thousand in attendance. One thousand people.

Admittedly, I was at first wary of the crowd — of whom I knew an approximate fifty, dispersed across the giant hall. Yet with the holiday closing in, the crowd was warming and I knew my place. I was one of them. And when — during the prayer — the crowd broke out in joyous song, we were all there. Together. Committed to a higher purpose and proud to be part of it. And maybe, just maybe, there we were united.

What then — in my estimation — is the key to unity? Joy. Specifically, meaningful joy. Happiness in a higher purpose and pride in a mission. A mission and purpose that we all share. Because in joy is transcendence, and in transcendence one may touch that intangible truth itself. That deep-seated conviction of goodness and purpose which lies at the core of our collective psyche.

Ultimately, we will most surely vary in our forms of commitment and engagement — as that’s how we translate the ideals into our personal lives. And there we are all different; we’ve all been blessed with our own gift to share. But in a moment of spiritual joy, one is enveloped in that higher purpose — and there we are all together.

There is a famous adage from the Baal Shem Tov that one should learn a lesson from everything one sees or hears — even the most negative. I’ve heard it been said that the armies of Napoleon would go to war marching to a joyous tune. And I think he knew this secret of transcendence. Many a war has been waged with anger, determination, even purpose. Yet in those emotions, it remains each man fending for himself. Bound to his goal — yes, but never transcending the self. What the French master might have known is that joy fosters transcendence and there the army is one. And any doubts or fear one might have harbored on his way out were quickly lost to a song. In the energy of this march, every soldier became engrossed and united in a common ideal. (Albeit an ideal that included destruction. Which, as a people, we have learned to reject. But perhaps in our joy we will find our ideals; what we know to be good and true. A higher purpose of bettering ourselves and perfecting the world; the goal to be found in our march of songs.)

Do I then suggest that we remain in that realm of transcendence? Not really. Life comes with its nitty-gritty and we must each face our own obstacles. Unity, though, is an experience to be cherished — for was this deeper truth to fuel our separate paths, I believe we would all be better off. And, at least, we would remain united in purpose. Until that next moment. Which I can’t truly describe.

Frankly, it is quite to my misfortune that I can’t explain it. Because, if I were able, I might have had an article to write. At least it’s gotten me thinking. . .

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